New York

“Soutine and Modern Art”

“The New Landscape / The New Still Life: Soutine and Modern Art” was a strange exhibition, an unexpected testimonial to the influence of Jewish painter Chaim Soutine, one of the so-called peintres maudits. But who was testifying? And in what exactly did Soutine’s influence consist? The show was organized by Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow. Tuchman, senior curator emeritus of twentieth century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has been a Soutine enthusiast and scholar since he curated a touring retrospective of the artist’s work in 1968, and recently deplored the Museum of Modern Art’s deaccessioning of the single Soutine painting it owned. Is the fact that MoMA appears far down on the curator’s list of lenders a form of subtle payback?

In his magisterial History of Modern Art (1968), H. H. Arnason writes that Soutine “is closer than any artist of the early twentieth century to the Abstract Expressionists, especially de Kooning” and employs a “seemingly uncontrolled but immensely descriptive brush gesture.” Tuchman doesn’t quote Arnason’s comment, but does cite Willem de Kooning’s observation that there is “a certain fleshiness in his work,” bringing to mind de Kooning’s remark that oil painting was invented to articulate flesh, and reminding us that artists invariably see other artists through the lens of their own interests.

Two de Kooning paintings were included in the show, as were two by Georg Baselitz, though his gestures look tame compared to Soutine’s. Frank Auerbach’s and especially Leon Kossoff ’s contributions perhaps come closest to Soutine’s anxious, self-dramatizing spirit; the works by Gandy Brodie, Richard Diebenkorn, Louise Fishman, and Philip Guston, however, seem almost too polite to have been included. Even Jean Dubuffet’s vigorous handling looks elegant next to Soutine’s raw, turbulent brushwork. But perhaps the strangest affinities suggested were with Louise Bourgeois’s suspended sculpture, The Quartered One, 1964–65, which looks much more Beuysian than Soutine-like, and with Joel Shapiro’s hanging geometrical constructions, which appear little more than a bad joke in this context.

Soutine’s paintings beat all those to which they were here compared, and make most judgments sound ridiculous too. Both critics and artists generally miss the point of Soutine: They tend to see his paintings in purely formalist terms, almost entirely overlooking their fantasy, violent urgency, and uncanniness. Thus Thomas Hess, describing a Soutine landscape, acknowledges “the personal sensation of terror, violence, and paint” in it, but then stupidly remarks that the work “is fitted together as deftly as any Cubist portrait.” He’s completely wrong, or else only trivially right: The parts don’t fit seamlessly together. Instability and unsteadiness are their very point.

Why in any case should Cubism be the measure of Soutine’s Expressionism? It’s the old avant-garde party line, privileging abstraction over representation, calculation over intuition, geometry over gesture, the determined and predetermined over the indeterminate and unexpected. Clement Greenberg raved about the artist’s gesturalism, but finally dismissed his paintings as failures because, despite their attempt to translate powerful feelings into aesthetic form, they were unable to achieve “decorative unity.” It is exactly this failure that makes them poignantly great.

Soutine’s works’ Jewishness, an issue left unaddressed by the exhibition, also has a part to play: Many of his images are metaphors for Jewish suffering. It may not be fashionable to talk of the poverty of the shtetl and the persecution of the Jews in contemporary America (wealthy despite the continued existence of poverty) but Soutine’s dead animals began as humble food on an otherwise barren table, not fancy still lifes meant for aesthetic edification, and it is the painter’s experience of these things that gives his art its morbidity, independence, and sacramental character. Several major Soutines were on display here, but none of the great portraits, and however much the other artists’ contributions seemed to pick up on his themes, they almost always appeared second-rate in his company.

Donald Kuspit